More on complexity in American life

One theme in my ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘ is that the sheer complexity of American life makes modern serfs out of many Americans.

It is in the nature of complexity that you cannot depict or chronicle it in one simple post. So I’ve had a go at American bureaucracy, at the tax system, at the healthcare system and so on. Now I come across this piece by Jason DeParle in today’s New York Times on the general issue of benefits in America. Excerpts with my emphasis:

As millions of people seek government aid, many for the first time, they are finding it dispensed American style: through a jumble of disconnected programs that reach some and reject others… Health care, housing, food stamps and cash — each forms a separate bureaucratic world, and their dictates often collide… Aid seekers often find the rules opaque and arbitrary. And officials often struggle to make policy through a system so complex and Balkanized.

Just one individual example:

A bureaucratic bungle compounded the woes of Ms. Johnson, who lost her job as a librarian at Magnolia Bible College in Kosciusko, Miss. Religious schools are exempt from unemployment taxes, so Ms. Johnson, 60, faced the recession without jobless benefits. She applied for food stamps and was denied because she had more than $3,000 in an Individual Retirement Account, though officials said she would qualify if the savings were in a 401(k). Finding the distinction illogical, Ms. Johnson searched the Internet and learned that Congress had just changed the law. As of October 2008, savings in either kind of retirement account are no barrier to food stamps. But state and county officials held firm, and a federal official sent an e-mail message supporting their outdated view. With the help of an advocacy group, the Public Policy Center of Mississippi, she finally traced the problem to an errant Web page at the Department of Agriculture. “To get maybe $320 of food stamps took an entire month of work,” she said.

I could paraphrase that last sentence about so, so many things here in the, ahem, land of the free.

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Free as Diogenes: a fantasy


One of my idols–and everybody has many and mutually contradictory idols–is Diogenes, the ancient Greek sage famous for living with no material possessions in a barrel.

I have to be careful about saying that because it might be misunderstood. Diogenes lived, quite deliberately, like a dog. Above, you see him with dogs. The Greek word for doglike, kynikos (as in, via Latin, the English canine) is the root of our word cynical. Diogenes was a cynic in the original and pristine sense.

So, yes, Diogenes defecated in public, masturbated in the marketplace and generally displayed the same unapologetic honesty towards others as, well, dogs do. I don’t intend to do any of those things, you’ll be reassured to know. So….

What’s the point?

My point, and the point of original cynicism, is to live a life that is:

  • simple
  • virtuous
  • honest
  • free

And there you have them, my favorite themes, especially simplicity and freedom.

Put differently, Diogenes and his crowd reacted against the complexity and dross of human society, something that I have been criticizing especially in American life.

The goal, you might say, is no entanglements; no bullshit; no striving for success as defined by the consumer society or power politics, because all of that only causes … suffering.

And with that last word, you see the connection that I make between Diogenes and the Buddha, Patanjali and Laozi (all of whom lived very roughly during the same ‘axial age’). They all believed in radical uncluttering and simplification as a way out of human suffering and into a higher form of freedom.

And so I hereby include Diogenes in my list of the world’s greatest thinkers. He was really a …

Greek Buddha

Calling Diogenes a Greek Buddhist is funny, of course. The three Asians I am comparing him to above (and others have made the same connection) communicated their insight in an Asian way: They retreated to some banyan tree or rode off on some water buffalo, kept themselves very clean, remained resolutely gentle towards others and wore that perennial smile that we Westerners eventually find somewhat annoying. (We do, don’t we?)

The ancient Greeks, by contrast, were confrontational, in-your-face, bring-it-on types. That was as much part of their Hellenism as their great art and culture. And in that way, they are recognizably Western–ie, like us.

But I believe the message of the cynics was the same as that of the Buddhists, Yogis and Taoists. And Diogenes delivered that message without ever preaching it, by simply living the example.

Diogenes looked past the vain and venal veneer of ‘civilized’ people around him and sought honesty instead–he carried a lamp around (in the picture above) to symbolize his search.

To stay simple and free, he volunteered for blissful poverty because he only wanted what he needed and we humans, as it turns out, need almost nothing. He had a wooden bowl to drink but then saw a boy drinking with his cupped hands and realized that he did not even need his bowl; so he threw it away and was happier for it. When Alexander the Great came to him (Diogenes being something of a celebrity by this time) and granted him any favor, Diogenes replied: ‘Yes, please, step out of my sunlight.’ (Alexander, being great indeed, was not offended but impressed. The two great men would die in the same year.)


Sounding like Einstein, Diogenes once said that

Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.

When asked where he was from, Diogenes was also the first person ever to say

I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites)

Cosmopolitan, eccentric, cynical (in the good way) and free: That was Diogenes. Wouldst that I had the same courage to bid all this crap in life adieu to live merrily in a barrel somewhere. Perhaps someday I will.

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America seen from the Netherlands

At the end of this excellent piece by Russell Shorto, an American expat in Amsterdam, a Dutch author named Geert Mak says to him:

America is the land of the free. But I think we are freer.

Now, where have we heard this before? Oh, right, it’s how I started my ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘, only I chose to say the same thing about Hong Kong vis-à-vis America.

Shorto does a very thoughtful and balanced job on some of the same themes I’ve covered in this series so far, including notions about inequality and healthcare. Compare, for example, the tenor of what I’ve been saying about oppressive American bureaucracy and what this American expat tells the author:

The amazing thing is that virtually every experience [here in the Netherlands] has been more pleasant than in the U.S. There you have the bureaucracy, the endless forms, the fear of malpractice suits. Here you just go in and see your doctor. It shows that it doesn’t have to be complicated.

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Sick and unfree in America


In ancient Taoist China, a well-off family would hire a doctor, pay him as long as everybody in the family was healthy, and stop paying him as soon as somebody got sick until that person was healthy again. This, as far as I know, was the last time that a society aligned the incentives in the healthcare industry properly.

By contrast, healthcare today is upside down: You don’t pay for the thing you want (health); you pay for service when the thing that you don’t want (sickness) comes around. Hypothetically, if you had two doctors, one Taoist and one modern, and if the Taoist were good enough at his job to keep you healthy, the modern doctor would not get paid at all!

I bring this up only as a little thought exercise to illustrate something important: Healthcare is not like other industries. If the product is muesli or ball bearings, it makes sense to talk about competitive markets and such. But if you’re dealing with an industry that is fundamentally upside down, you have to be careful about using trite concepts of economics.

Another way that healthcare is different: If there were large numbers of, for example, children in society that could not get muesli or ball bearings, we could live with it. After all, they can get corn flakes instead, and walk instead of using wheels. The “market failure” would not equate to a shameful indignity. By contrast, if children (and adults, for that matter) cannot get access to healthcare, it is a shameful indignity.

(Disclaimer: As with everything on The Hannibal Blog, the opinions in this post are mine and mine alone, and may or may not overlap with the views of my magazine, The Economist.)

Healthcare and freedom

I bring up healthcare only reluctantly in my ongoing ‘Freedom Lover’s Critique of America’. I’m not qualified to talk about it and it’s not my beat at The Economist. But I decided that it belongs into this series because America’s healthcare system is so different from those in all comparable countries, and because it has such a direct bearing on freedom.

That the system is dysfunctional is well known. I won’t rehearse the familiar list of failings (many uninsured; many underinsured, et cetera). Let me just point to a few features for the subsequent discussion:

  1. American healthcare is typically American in that is it bureaucratic and adversarial. The effect on patients is alienating and dehumanizing. At the precise moment when they are most vulnerable and dejected, they are expected to go to war against their insurance company on the 1-800 numbers and phone trees to contest pieces of paper they don’t understand. But they have to, because their insurance company will contest almost every single claim–for this is built into the system!
  2. American healthcare is also typically American in being uneccessarily complex, as America’s tax system is. I’m not talking about the medical side–that is complex everywhere, because our bodies are–but about the administrative side.

Does this limit the freedom of individual Americans? Yes, and let me just give one concrete example. A free society is one in which people feel free to move and to change jobs, among other things. But a great many Americans are afraid to change or quit jobs, because their healthcare coverage is tied to an employer. So healthcare can become yet another of the shackles that makes serfs out of many Americans.

More generally, the system’s dysfunction limits freedom because it robs so many Americans of dignity. And dignity is a prerequisite for freedom. Thomas Jefferson could write “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” only because he lived in a relatively innocent age, the Enlightenment. A more mature constitution of liberty, such as West Germany’s after the Holocaust, begins with

Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar–The dignity of each human being is untouchable.

So yes, healthcare belongs into any debate about whether a country can claim to be free or not. Now let’s figure out what sort of problem healthcare poses, in general and in America.

What kind of problem is healthcare?

When the ancient Chinese paid Taoist doctors to keep them healthy, healthcare was a cost of living, comparable to food and shelter. When we turned it around and paid doctors for managing our sickness, healthcare became an insurance problem.

And there are two traditions of modern insurance:

1) Lloyd’s of London

In 1688, rich toffs started hanging out in Edward Lloyd’s coffee house in London, near where the ships came in and maritime gossip spread. They began betting on which ships would make it to port with their cargo and which might sink. They called it ‘insurance’. It was really a higher form of gambling, with huge profits when the bets went well and huge losses when they went bad. This is the origin of the Anglo-Saxon view of insurance: as a profit-business.

2) Swiss mountain valleys

In Switzerland, going back to I-don’t-know-when, villagers got together to share risk. You might say they “collectivized” it, but don’t think that they were socialists. They were freely volunteering to pool their individual risks because they noticed something that we now call

the Law of Large Numbers

Say that a Swiss village had 1,000 houses. The villagers knew from historical record that, on average, one house would burn down every year. That house’s family would be devastated. Let’s put their loss at SF1,000 to make the math simple. The other families would suffer no loss at all, but they could not tolerate the indignity of letting one family suffer and lived in fear that they might themselves be next.

So they agreed, in free assembly, to pony up SF1 each for a SF1,000 fund. The SF1,000 then went to the one family whose house burnt down to make it whole.

What had they done? They had exchanged a

large but uncertain loss

for a

small but certain one.

They were able to do this thanks to the Law of Large Numbers, which says that an unpredictable risk becomes highly predictable when it is pooled with large numbers of similar, but unrelated, risks.


The Law does not work if the individual risks are correlated. The Great Fire of London in 1666 (below) happened because all of London’s thatched houses stood so close together that they were in fact one big house from the point of view of a flame.


The Law also does not work if adverse selection spoils the risk pool. For instance, say that some of the Swiss villagers had opted out of the pool because they had stone houses. Only those families with highly flammable houses would have entered the pool, but that would mean that the 1-in-a-1,000 ratio no longer applied (it would be much higher).

The Law also does not work if moral hazard changes the way people behave once they get insurance. If some villagers get the idea that, since they are now “covered”, they might as well set their houses afire, the system breaks down.

Finally, the Law works best for risks that are high in frequency, low in devastation. Fire is a good example. It does not work well for risks that are low in frequency, high in devastation. An extinction-causing meteor is a good example. (Who would charge whom what premium for what risk?)

Back to healthcare

And where does healthcare fit in?

  • First, it is very high in frequency (everybody gets injured or sick sooner or later) and low in devastation (usually only that one life is at risk). For most illnesses–diabetes, heart disease, etc–actuaries know exactly what percentage of the population as a whole will get sick in a given year.
  • Moral hazard is not a problem, because–loonies and rock stars excepted–people do not intentionally ruin their health just because they are insured.
  • Adverse selection is a problem, because risk, and the perception of it, changes over a lifetime. The young feel immortal and would opt out to save the buck (Swiss Franc) for a beer, leaving only the geezers to pay up.


Healthcare seems to be altogether unsuitable for a Lloyd’s of London (Anglo-Saxon, profit-driven) insurance culture, and perfectly suited for a Swiss-mountain-valley (risk sharing) insurance culture.

The prerequisite is that everybody in the pool must participate to avoid adverse selection.This, however, would require a mandate for the majority to coerce a few unwilling individuals, and that is something that (real) liberals do not like. But many liberals (and the Swiss are freedom lovers!) make this sacrifice because they understand that it is necessary: Dignity mandates that we look after the sick even if they have opted out of participating, so some people would become free riders.

There are two simple ways to get everybody into one risk pool subject to the Law of Large Numbers:

  1. Tax everybody a little bit (the equivalent of the SF1 per village family) to cover the proportion of people being sick every year, or
  2. make people buy their own insurance, rather as we require car insurance for drivers.

The first leads to a British or Canadian-style single-payer system. (Important: Notice that the government need only manage the funding of the care, not the care itself.) Since everybody is covered, there need be no paperwork for patients. I still remember when I was visiting Britain as a teenager with a soccer team and woke up unable to move my neck one day. I dragged myself to the street, got a taxi to a hospital, and, although I was not British, got fantastic care without signing a single piece of paper.

The second leads to a system of competing insurance carriers. This is fine, although there is one problem: What if you pay premiums to one insurer while you’re young, but then you switch to another insurer when you’re old? That would be adverse selection again (for the second insurer). But in a competitive system, patients would move in both directions, and might cancel one another out. Even so, there is slightly more paperwork for patients, since the care provider needs to reclaim the money from any of several insurers.

Notice that, either way, the economic burden is the same: Every citizen pays, whether through taxes or premiums, the same amount to participate in the risk pool.


And now, the American way: A bit of everything, mixed together and stirred. If you’re a veteran, you participate in huge risk pool. If you’re old (Medicaid) or poor (Medicaid), you participate in other risk pools. If you buy your own insurance, you can carry your coverage around, but you are paying much higher premiums because the insurer assumes adverse selection. If you’re employed, your company arranges coverage, but only as long as you work for it. If you are none of the above, you have no coverage and go to the emergency room when you’re sick, thus leaving the provider to hike everybody else’s costs to compensate for you.

Paper, paper, paper. No law of large numbers for society as a whole. Fragmentation. Confrontation between patient and insurer. Nightmare.

And if Obama goes on to do just the “politically feasible” thing–which, in America, is to add more “options” and complexity–it will get worse.

The way to bring freedom and dignity to America is to get rid of employer-sponsored insurance and to have either  one single government-run insurance pool or mandatory individual insurance for one privately-run insurance pool. Nothing else works.

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Frenemies: Freedom and equality


Marianne, above, did not flash her boobs to all those corpses for nothing. She did it for the trinity (as in the tricolore she carries) of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Let’s leave fraternity, which is a rather mushy notion, to one side. That leaves liberty and equality. Do those two belong together?

I knew I would have to address this issue sooner or later in my ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘. But the fascinating debate in the comments below this post brought it to the fore. Fortunately, that comment thread neatly summarizes the entire spectrum, across the world and history, of views on the subject. As I see it, the three options are:

  • You can’t have freedom without equality.
  • You can’t have freedom with equality.
  • It’s complicated.

The Classical Liberal view

Broadly, classical liberals (as properly defined) are passionately in favor of equal opportunity and just as passionately against enforced equal outcomes, exactly as “Hizzoner” paraphrased Friedrich von Hayek here.

Which is to say: If you (ie, the government) predetermine that everybody will be the same (think the same, dress the same, drive the same car, live in the same house…) then nobody in your society can be free, if ‘free’ means being able to be yourself, ie different than others. Why create, why achieve, why risk, if the fruits of your effort and ingenuity will be confiscated (“redistributed”) in the name of equality?

I personally glimpsed the extreme form of just such a dystopia when I peaked into East Germany months before it crumbled (although I didn’t know that it would crumble, of course). They were all driving, or on the waiting list for, the same damn Trabi. And while I was ogling their Trabis, many East Germans were already flooding into the West German embassy in Hungary, trying to escape and eventually forcing their leaders to let the Berlin Wall crumble.

That same example, East Germany, also showed what Hayek correctly predicted would happen in reality in an ‘egalitarian’ society. As Orwell might put it: Some were more equal than others. The difference was that the ‘more equal’ ones didn’t use wealth to assert their supremacy but more nefarious means–party connections, or what the Chinese call guanxi. The resulting horror was captured intimately on screen here.

And so, to those of us, like me, who were devotees of Ayn Rand, the answer was clear. Equality is the enemy of individualism, and thus of freedom.

How it got complicated for Liberals

Even at the time, however, there were some contradictions that gnawed at me. Even in the ‘free world’, we were often invoking equality. For instance, democracy, which we (perhaps wrongly) associated with freedom seemed to be based on the equality of one citizen = one vote, even as capitalism seemed to be based on the opposite, ie unequal outcomes.

Then there was the bit about equal opportunity, which we were all supposed to be for. Well, this was messy, because, inconveniently, we were biological organisms and as such insisted on looking after our offspring. Anybody who ‘makes it’ devotes his entire life, and all his resources, to ensuring that his offspring get a head start. And who can blame him?

So if ‘we’ (the government) really wanted to preserve equal opportunity, we would have to get heavy-handed and stop ‘him’ from looking after his kids. We would have to stop him not just from sending his kids to better schools and doctors, but from reading his kids all those bedtime stories, paying for all those piano lessons and SAT prep courses, building all those Lego houses with them–ie, from doing all those things that give kids ‘unequal’ opportunity. In short, we would have to take his freedom away! Obviously, a non-starter.

The triumph of biology

And then I saw a documentary. I tuned in somewhere during the middle and never saw the title, so I can’t be sure it is this one, but it might be. It was based at least in part on Sir Michael Marmot’s Whitehall Study from Britain. Here is how I remember it:

Stress: It is not the same as pressure, which we all feel from time to time. Instead, it comes from ranking low in a hierarchy and lacking power over your own time, your own self (=not being free). You who are at the bottom are at the whim of others. You suffer. And not ‘just’ psychologically, but biologically. You tend to get fat in your mid-section, and your heart, blood vessels and brain change visibly, with entire neurological circuits shriveling up. Meanwhile, the brains and hearts of top dogs expand and thrive.

The most poignant moment came when they cut from our species, Homo sapiens, to monkeys. The researchers observed packs of primates, and sure enough: a monkey at the bottom of the hierarchy got fat in his mid section, had hardened arteries and heart walls and a a shriveled brain.

Equally poignant: One group of monkeys, led by particularly aggressive alpha males, played in a trash dump and was decimated by an epidemic. Another group, more female and egalitarian, moved in and absorbed the survivors of the first group. The egalitarian culture prevailed. And voilà, the health of the surviving monkeys from the first group recovered and improved! They were slim, their hearts and arteries pumped, their brains fired on all neurons.

Let’s take this one more step toward generalization: You recall that I criticized Ayn Rand for getting individualism wrong (which took me many years to figure out). Well, I now know how she got it wrong. She did not allow or understand how inviduals, when forming groups, pick up signals from one another that change who and what they are.

Watch this amazing TED talk by Bonnie Bassler as a mind-blowing illustration of what I mean. It is not about humans per se, but about bacteria. That’s right. Stupid, single-cellular strings of DNA and surrounding gunk. The trick to understanding bacteria (→all biological critters?) is to grasp how they chemically detect the presence of other bacteria, and then suddenly change their own chemistry. Upshot: No bacterium is an island.

The case of America

Let’s now look at America. Without getting into the academic weeds, there is a proxy for social equality called the Gini Coefficient. If the coefficient is 0, everybody has exactly the same; if it is 1, one person has everything, and everybody else has nothing. So countries fall somewhere in the middle between 0 and 1. Now look at this world map:


The first thing you will notice is that the darkest blues and purples–ie, the greatest inequality–tend to be in poor countries, even in nominally “Communist” ones such as China. That’s because poor countries tend to be corrupt and feudal, with a few lords and many serfs. It is hard to consider these countries “free”.

But the second thing is more interesting. If you look at just the “developed” countries (let’s say those belonging to the OECD), you notice that one country stands out.

All the rich countries are in shades of yellow or green, meaning that they are fairly egalitarian societies. Only America is blue. America, in short, is the least egalitarian of all the developed countries.

And so? I’m not sure. The old Hayekian in me would chalk this up as a possible sign of more freedom in America than elsewhere. The new bacteriologist and epidemiologist in me wants to ring the alarm bell. This is not healthy! Sure, the Americans on top of the pecking order might show up at Party Conventions every four years and proclaim that ours is the freest country in the world. But many other Americans are simultaneously dying from their serfdom, whether they are aware of it or not.

For the time being, let’s consider freedom and equality neither friends nor enemies, but frenemies.

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Tax day thoughts on complexity in American life


April 15. Tax day. All over America today, people are amusing themselves with “tea parties“. And that is great fun, to be sure. Part of our creation myth is that the country started with a tax revolt, as we rugged individualists stood up to those imperial tyrants. So let’s put on our costumes and play.

But let’s then talk seriously about taxation as part of our ongoing ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘. To do that intelligently, I feel I must remove one important distraction upfront:

I don’t believe we are overtaxed in America. I believe that some of us could pay even more. But the amount or rate of American taxation is not the problem.

What, then, is the problem? Make no mistake that there is a problem. America’s tax system is a scandal. It is incompatible with freedom.

The problem is complexity, and its effect, opacity.

Today I heard the IRS commissioner say on NPR that America’s tax code is four times as long as War and Peace. 5.5 million words, apparently. The wordcount, however, is a very abstract and bad way of grasping the complexity of the system. We don’t read the code.

The complexity begins hurting, and enslaving, us as we live–that is, as we participate in our society and economy, have children, work and save, and so forth. Young Americans probably don’t know what the fuss is about. That’s because they are not yet participating fully in society. Some adult Americans–probably the spouses of the one “doing the taxes” in any given household–might also feign surprise. That is because they have chosen not to inquire into this scandal. But they are fooling themselves.

The only legal American way to keep things simple in matters of tax paperwork and hassle is not to live. That’s the only way. Don’t work, save, have children, move, and so forth. (Above all, never ever contemplate hiring a nanny!) So I think we can agree that a country that torments its citizens just for trying to make their dreams come true (might I say, for “pursuing their happiness”?) is not … free!

Short meditation on complexity and simplicity

Regular readers of The Hannibal Blog already know how important simplicity is to me, in all things aesthetic, creative, or administrative. Simplicity to me accompanies freedom. I feel free when I am free of clutter.

But I also recognize that nature is full of complexity. and that complexity can be beautiful. However, it comes in three very different kinds:

  1. Natural. Our bodies, for example, are extremely complex. The two nervous systems, the immune system, each organ, each cell, each organelle within each cell–all these are beautifully and mysteriously complex. However, this complexity has evolved, and comes with a “user interface” that remains extremely simple. We do not compute how to attack a virus in our body or how to inhale, we just do it. The complexity is hidden.
  2. Manmade, but following the path of nature: Our cars, for example, are constantly getting more complex. I might have been able to fix a Model T, but I can’t begin to comprehend the 20-odd computers that together represent my Prius. However, just as our bodies hide their complexity from us with a simple user interface, my Prius hides its complexity, so that driving (and bluetoothing, GPSing, etc) is simpler than it was in a Model T. Such complexity is actually sophistication. It works for us, and thus is humane.
  3. Manmade, and going against the path of nature. This is the bad one. This is where our bureaucracies reside. They get inexorably more complex, as surely as entropy increases anywhere in nature, but away from sophistication and toward oppression. They are inhumane. Our tax system is the best (meaning worst) example.

Symptoms of denial

So they arrive, the W2s, W4s, W8s, the 10this and 10thats, the Schedules A, B, C, D, E, F, the worksheets and other papers, and above all, those truly weird, out-of-nowhere, can’t-even-indentify, forms of the sort that we just got and now have the pleasure of disputing and investigating.

People respond in one of three ways.

  1. Take deep breaths, fire up TurboTax and just do it. Those of us who are youngish tend to do it, because we are the do-it-yourself generation, or don’t trust that a tax preparer would do it as meticulously as we will, or actually want to understand (gasp) our affairs.
  2. Get an accountant, forward all that dreadful crap to him, sign whatever he produces, and push the whole thing out of our consciousness.
  3. Break down and give up completely, not filing at all.

In my opinion, 3 is the worst, 2 is the second-worst, and 1 is merely bad. Why? Because all those in Number 2 are fooling themselves. They are accepting that they cannot, and never will, understand their own relationship to government. They are acquiescing in a subtle form of serfdom.


We can say, speaking for adult Americans who participate fully in life, society and economy, that:

Nobody truly understands why they pay what they pay

The tax system, in short, has become a black box.


Black boxes are profoundly and inherently illiberal. Propaganda about “lands of the free” is empty when you’re shouting it over black boxes. (And there are other black boxes in American life, to which I will get.)

Finally, recall my two comparisons to Hong Kong: 1) There, my tax return was two pages, counting the bilingual translation, and I understood exactly what it contained. 2) This despite Hong Kong not being a democracy. How intriguing. As it turns out, it is our peculiar American brand of democracy that has caused this mess.

Of that, and of the possible ways out of this mess, more in posts to come.

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Bureaucracy and alienation in American life


The Hannibal Blog continues its multi-post and cumulative ‘freedom lover’s critique of America.” In recent posts, I reflected on Hong Kong, and how very differently–read: freer–I felt when I lived there. Now I want to start exploring what it is that makes me feel unfree in America.

Let me define the direction of my posts (in the comments you can go wherever you please). I won’t be talking about America’s role in the world at large. I won’t be talking about whether or not the world owes America for saving it from totalitarianism in the past (it does). I’ll be discussing only what it feels like to be inside of America today, after having known life in other developed and comparable countries. More specifically, I will concentrate on what it feels like to interact with the organs of official America. (That individual Americans will comfort one another and make life livable is obvious, but no more so than in any other country.)

In essence, this becomes a discussion of American bureaucracy.

God knows other countries have a lot of it, and often more of it, than America. But America has a peculiar brand of it. It has many and overlapping bureaucracies. These share data but do so awkwardly and antagonistically. Democracy does not help but often hurts, because electoral politics (people campaigning in poetry, then governing in prose) add to these bureaucracies. America’s legal tradition, often praised, hurts too, because it is adversarial (as opposed to inquisitorial). It is based on the clash of two parties, each trying to win, with the hope that truth and justice are on the side of the winner. This pervades all of official life in America: You prepare for clashes, you arm for war, then climb down when possible. (Hong Kong also has an adversarial system, but without the rest of America’s bureaucracy.)

Let’s make this concrete. Watch Barry Schwartz talk about our loss of what he calls “wisdom”. It meanders a bit and will strike you as only tangentially relevant. But pay attention to some of the anecdotes. They are peculiarly American. In one, a father takes his son to a ballgame, buys him some lemonade, doesn’t realize that it is a brand that contains some alcohol, is observed by a guard who (yes, preparing for war, using the bureaucracies) calls an ambulance and the cops. The son ends up in the emergency room (procedures and rules are being followed, you understand) and is declared safe. One bureaucracy (something with “welfare” in the name) sends the child to a foster home for three days. A judge (in another bureaucracy, the court system) sends the son home, but now orders the dad to move into a motel. The ordeal goes on for two more weeks. All bureaucrats involved eventually say “we have to follow the rules”.

America is all about rules. It is the land of ever more disclosure statements, ethics training seminars, pieces of paper (often with a notice at the bottom about a “Paperwork Reduction Act”!).

Schwartz says these procedures and frameworks of officialdom are meant to “spare us from thinking”, to relieve us of spontaneous and moral judgment. They “assure mediocrity”, he says. To me, they contribute to making me feel less free.

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Freedom lessons from Hong Kong (2): democracy


How liberating

Recall, for a moment, the famous lad who went out one Friday night, ordered gin with orange juice and got tipsy. He went out again Saturday night, ordered vodka and orange juice and got tipsy again. He loved being tipsy so much, he went out and bought himself a whole liter of … orange juice.

Let’s now look at the role of democracy in freedom. Is it the gin or the orange juice?

Last time in this thread–an emerging ‘freedom lover’s critique of America‘–I shared with you my experience of living in Hong Kong as an instructive way into understanding life in today’s America. In brief: I felt freer in Hong Kong than anywhere else I have ever lived; I feel less free in America than anywhere else I have lived.

Even as my fingers still touched the keyboard, I started bracing myself for some inevitable rejoinders. Of which the first and most obvious is: Hong Kong is not a democracy, whereas America proudly is!

Coming clean

I once belonged to a salivating pack of expatriate journalists in Hong Kong who loved to scrutinize every Asian government we covered based on its minute-by-minute body language toward democracy.

  • More democracy = approve
  • Less democracy = disapprove

It was an evergreen topic for us, easy to pitch to an editor, easy to write, easy to be smug about. Hong Kong, during its suspenseful transition from British to Chinese rule, was a particularly good place for “democracy” stories. If an errant Falun Gong meditator from Ohio or Liaoning so much as got stuck in his Lotus pose, I was ready to suspect sinister interference from the Mainland.

On the Mainland, whenever I got stuck in an interview, I whipped out that word, democracy. In Taiwan and the Philippines, officials occasionally played the trick on me: They whipped out the word to buy time. After all, what else could I possibly demand as long as the place was, you know, democratic and thus surely free.

In America, George W. Bush was composing entire inaugural addresses around just two words–freedom and democracy–as a way of explaining wars and himself. Very few people called him on that particular association. The two do seem to go together.

Hell is other demos

Actually, they do not. They can, but they need not. In Foreign Affairs, twelve years ago, Fareed Zakaria coined two powerful memes: Illiberal democracy and liberal autocracy. (That’s liberal as properly used.) He simply observed that there are an awful lot of democracies–ie, countries whose governments are chosen in elections–today whose citizens are anything but free. And there are quite a few autocracies whose people are free. Hong Kong is one of them.

Another free (ie, liberal) autocracy in history was colonial America, before the British started imposing exotic new taxes. The king was far away and left the colonials alone. They had no say in government, but did not care because they were free to live their lives. I once read somewhere (if anybody could point me to the link, I would be grateful) that this was the freest period in American history.

Next came taxation. Then the call for none of it without representation. Then the constitutional convention. And how did our founding fathers approach the issue? James Madison, possibly thinking of ancient Athens, said that:

Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and conflict; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

In general, the founding fathers believed Polybius: the best government balances monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Without such balance, monarchy becomes tyranny; aristocracy becomes oligarchy; democracy becomes mob rule. Today, this skepticism about democracy lives on in a small circle of libertarians/liberals such as Ron Paul, who worry about “majoritarian” oppression.

If you read this to mean that I am against democracy, you have misunderstood this post. I am not necessarily against it. And yes, I do love Winston Churchill’s wit. I am merely pointing out that democracy can coexist or conflict with freedom. Some of us have got used to seeing the two together, like orange juice and vodka in a screwdriver, and have made an inappropriate association.

But democracy is irrelevant to our topic. The origin of freedom is to be found elsewhere. And we will look for it.

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Freedom lessons from Hong Kong (1)

From late 1999 to 2003, I lived in Hong Kong. In personal terms, I had some ups and downs there, but that is of no interest here. What’s interesting is that Hong Kong is the freest place I have ever lived in.

In Hong Kong, the authorities and bureaucracies leave you alone.

And this–being left alone–is one simple first definition of freedom. How much time do you spend defending yourself against weird paperwork that shows up in your mailbox? In America, a lot. In Hong Kong, at least when I lived there, almost none.

Let me summarize what I recall to be my interactions with Hong Kong bureaucracies (not counting the ones that I interviewed as a journalist):

  • I had to get my visa when I moved there, and to renew it once during my stay. Since I have two passports, I even made some paperwork mistakes that needed to be corrected. I personally showed up at the immigration agency each time. Total time spent in 4 years (filling out paperwork, waiting in line): 9 minutes!
  • I had to file Hong Kong taxes. (Not German or British taxes, since those countries do not harrass their former residents or citizens when they go abroad; but also American taxes, since the United States, like North Korea (!), asserts global jurisdiction over its citizens.) Total page count of my Hong Kong tax forms, including bilingual translations into English and Chinese: 2 pages! Number of boxes filled in with a money amount: 1! Estimated time spent in 4 years filling out my Hong Kong tax returns: 13 minutes!
  • Then, of course, there were all those other forms that I had to…. Oh, wait. No, there weren’t any. That was it.

Those of you living in America or the European Union, but especially America, might be starting to guess where this is going. Think about the crap that you get in your mailboxes, look at your file cabinets, weigh the paper of your correspondence with your bureaucracies. Read their tone (“on penalty of perjury”). Observe how bureaucratic and official America makes you feel.

Two questions:

  1. Do you feel free? (I am not asking you to enumerate the usual lists of freedoms in the plural–speech, press, association, etc. I am asking you how you feel. Beleaguered or free?)
  2. Do you understand your affairs and interactions with official bureaucracies? (I am not asking whether you can point me to the relevant file for each bureaucracy; I am asking whether you comprehend why your are paying this tax rate and not that, why this form showed up and not that, whether you have set up everything optimally or not, et cetera.)

I am guessing that quite a few of you are already inhaling to inform me that I could not have, should not have, must not have felt free in Hong Kong, that colony of first the British and then the Communist-Chinese empire. China! What about democracy?

Ah. Let’s re-examine that particular issue anon.

More on the liber in Liberal

Anxious Soren

Anxious Soren

Now that I’ve reclaimed the word Liberal from the barbarian hordes in American television and politics, I thought I should expand the topic so that we are all equally confused again.

Liberal, we agreed, comes from the Latin liber, meaning free. It is a philosophy of freedom. Nuff said.

Actually, no. There are so many ways of thinking about freedom that it quickly makes your head spin.

Political, national and personal

In this course, Rufus Fears, a professor I quite like, distinguishes between political, national and personal freedom. You can have personal freedom without political and national freedom (colonial America, Hong Kong within China) and national freedom without political and personal freedom (post-colonial Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew, in my opinion).

Negative and positive

Another way of thinking about it is negative versus positive freedoms. Negative freedom is about being left alone by somebody powerful, probably the government: no confiscations, intrusions, invasions of privacy, etc. Positive freedom is the opposite: an intervention by somebody, probably the government, to improve your life. Among Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “four freedoms”, the third one is a positive freedom:

  1. Freedom of speech
  2. Freedom of religion
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

Existential and spiritual

Then there are the likes of Gautama Siddhartha, aka the Buddha, and Soren Kierkegaard, pictured above. They took thinking about freedom to a whole new level. The Buddha (and his contemporary, Patanjali) showed us that oppression comes from our own mind–its fears, craving, anger, and desire in general–so that freedom is about making the mind still. It is internal to every individual.

Kierkegaard and the Existentialists who followed him would agree with that but draw a different conclusion. Because we are free, we are free to screw everything up and we know it. This makes us anxious. So freedom leads to Angst (whereas the Buddha’s freedom comes after Angst has finally become quiet).

The problem of choice

Then there is the entirely new and modern problem of too much choice. Thanks to Richard, I found a TED video by Barry Schwartz, a psychologist, in which he dispels the myth that more choice equals, or leads to, freedom. Instead, it increasingly paralyzes and enslaves us.

When you are stumped

  • in your supermarket aisle by the 175 salad dressings before you;
  • in your electronics store  by the 6.5 million permutations of stereo systems on offer;
  • or with your 401(k) paperwork by the 2,000 mutual funds available,

then you are not really free. You just give up. You will regret whatever you do choose, because the other options might have been better. And you will blame yourself because now it’s your fault that life is not perfect. I think of this as Kierkegaard 2.o.

In summary, I have hereby once again proven how much fun and excitement there is to be had by hanging around… real Liberals. 😉